King County court hears tax initiative lawsuit

SEATTLE — A King County judge said Friday that he will need time to decide whether a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Initiative 1053, which requires a supermajority of the Legislature to raise taxes or close tax loopholes, should go forward.

The lawsuit is brought by the League of Education Voters, the state’s largest teacher’s union, parents, taxpayers and lawmakers.

Superior Court Judge Bruce E. Heller heard arguments Friday from lawyers representing the coalition, the state attorney general’s office and the governor, with the governor and the attorney general speaking on opposite sides.

Initiative 1053 was approved by Washington voters in November 2010 and has prevented lawmakers from adopting tax increases since then.

The complex arguments focused on the intent of the framers of the state constitution, whether the constitution sets a minimum requirement for legislative voting on taxes, and whether previous court decisions on constitutional issues created a framework for this case.

Solicitor General Maureen Hart, representing the attorney general, seemed to catch both the judge’s and the other lawyers’ attention with her assertion that the Legislature could at any time have decided not to require a supermajority vote on a tax issue.

Then the courts would get to decide if lawmakers had broken the law, only if someone objected to this decision, Hart said. Paul J. Lawrence of Pacifica Law Group, who represented the coalition, strongly disagreed, saying lawmakers take an oath to follow the laws.

Hart also argued that the case was brought prematurely because no one has effectively challenged the initiative during the legislative process.

The other side argued the constitutional framers made their intent clear by the way they phrased the clauses calling for simple majority votes and that the constitution would call for a supermajority if that’s what the framers intended.

Lawrence also pointed out that every other state that requires a super-majority vote on tax issues did so in their constitution.

The attorney general’s office argues the state constitution sets a simple majority as the minimum for bill passage; it does not prohibit statutes that require a higher bar.

“The plaintiffs want to put the constitution in the middle of this dispute,” Hart said.

Michele Radosevich of Davis Wright Tremaine spoke on behalf of the governor. She said the outcome of this case is of interest to her because she creates a state budget proposal and has found it difficult to get tax proposals passed.

“The Legislature does defer to the courts to tell it what is constitutional,” Radosevich said, adding, “The governor finds the state’s response particularly troubling.”

Two years ago, voters overwhelmingly supported the initiative, which resurrected an old idea approved by voters as far back as 1993: putting a higher bar for legislative votes to raise taxes.

Lawmakers are allowed to change or suspend initiatives after two years. But initiative sponsor Tim Eyman said Friday he has not decided whether to pursue a similar initiative this fall to try to keep that from happening.

Opponents said I-1053 would allow a small segment of the Legislature to overturn the principle of majority rule.

In a brief filed by the attorney general’s office, the state of Washington notes that the lawsuit was filed by nonprofit corporations because they believe they have an interest in successfully lobbying the Legislature to enact laws that would advance their public policy preferences.

“Successfully lobbying the Legislature is not a right or a legally protected interest, and the corporate plaintiffs do not (and could not) assert that RCW 42.133.034(1) prevents them from lobbying the Legislature to promote their interests,” the brief said.

The brief also pointed out the state supreme court rejected a similar argument two years ago in a lawsuit brought by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown against another initiative.

The state of Washington is the defendant in this lawsuit because once voters approve an initiative it becomes state law.

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